Ukraine at D+26: Failure-driven escalation.
N2K logoMar 22, 2022

Russia continues to expend long-range munitions, Ukraine retakes a Kyiv suburb, and the US warns of imminent cyberattacks.

Ukraine at D+26: Failure-driven escalation.

Ukraine continues to defend Mariupol in brutal street fighting. In the north, its forces have ejected Russian troops from the important Kyiv suburb of Makariv, the AP reports. Combat failure is prompting more disproportionately violent and indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations.

High and possibly unsustainable casualties?

A report leaked from Komsomolskaya Pravda indicates that Russian casualties are two orders of magnitude larger than official sources had hitherto acknowledged, and, indeed that they're somewhat larger than the "conservative" estimates the US Department of Defense began sharing at the end of last week. Before Komsolomskaya Pravda took down its March 20th report (saying as it did so that it had been "hacked") the Telegraph recorded the story that 9861 soldiers had been killed and an additional 16,153 injured during the special military operation. The losses may be unsustainable.

Casualties among high-ranking officers in particular are running high: the Telegraph reports that a sixth flag or general officer was killed in Mariupol. The deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet was killed leading naval infantry in the attempted reduction of the port city. High casualties among senior officers almost always indicate problems with training and morale in the ranks, which senior officers seek to overcome by leading from the front, by exposing themselves to risk.

Professional military failure.

An essay by analysts from RAND published in Breaking Defense diagnoses the Russian army's problems as originating in a failure of the professionalization that's been underway for decades, a problem that's been "hiding in plain sight" for years. The analysts cite sources within the Russian military itself who have been, in effect, voices crying unheard:

"For example, back in 2014, the Russian military’s sociology center reported that more than a quarter of their own personnel surveyed reported having problems with their infantry equipment. A 2020 article in a Ministry of Defense military journal talks about a gap in the increase in advanced systems deployment and the ability of the service members to operate them effectively. Gennady Zhytko, the Commander of the Eastern Military District (which reportedly is heavily involved in the conflict), lamented in 2020 the shortage of officers on the battalion and regiment level.

"Insights from Russia’s scholars complement these military publications. Despite being limited in their access and pressure to paint a bright picture, some researchers admit that Russia’s military forces lack material and professional motivation to serve.

"We cannot speak to the Russian military strategy or equipment they are using. We can, however, point to what Russian service members seem to be doing with their equipment. The apparent failures among the Russian rank and file suggest this country has underlying problems in its efforts to professionalize its force structure. But you don’t have to take our word for it, the Russian military and their scholars have released research — sometimes with data — to support this conclusion."

Reforming an army is challenging but far from impossible. Part of the problem in Russia's case may be the temptation to believe your own press releases. Another part of the problem may have been the substitution of hand-waving for realistic logistical preparation, especially since the units that had experienced the most severe supply and maintenance shortfalls appear to have been those with the poorest understanding of Mr. Putin's intent. An Atlantic Council essay points out another shortfall in professionalism: an experienced corps of noncommissioned officers who would have known what to pack.

Long-range ordnance is now being expended at unexpectedly high rates.

Lack of success on the ground has led Russia to expend more long-range ordnance to redress close-combat failures. The British Ministry of Defense last night described the introduction of new weapons as follows: "Russia has claimed that it has fired a number of “hypersonic” missiles against targets in western Ukraine. If true, these were likely the Kinzhal; an air launched ballistic missile system based on the Iskander ballistic missile which has itself already been heavily used by Russian forces in their attack on Ukraine. Russian claims of having used the developmental Kinzhal is highly likely intended to detract from a lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign. Deployment of Kinzhal is highly unlikely to materially affect the outcome of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine." That is, the technology is gaudy but baroque, not the sort of weapon likely to have a decisive effect on the outcome of ground combat. We note in particular that hypersonic delivery is an act of supererogation on the ground: you don't need ordnance to arrive at Mach 5 when you're hitting shopping centers, theaters, and other civilian buildings in the center of cities undefended by anti-missile systems. The speed doesn't kill any more effectively, but it might contribute to the terror.

Other possible escalations: chemical warfare.

President Biden yesterday raised the prospect that President Putin might escalate to the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine. (His discussion was, as Reuters points out, "without evidence," but then Mr. Biden was talking to a deeply civilian audience at the Business Roundtable's quarterly CEOs' meeting.) Russian disinformation alleging the presence of US chemical and biological weapons in Europe has been seen as preparing a casus belli for Russian use of such weapons. "And so, [President Putin's] back is against the wall. And he’s — now he’s talking about new false flags he’s setting up, including he’s asserting that, we, in America, have biological as well as chemical weapons in Europe — simply not true. I guarantee you," Mr. Biden said. "They’re also suggesting that Ukraine has biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. That’s a clear sign he is considering using both of those. He’s already used chemical weapons in the past, and we should be careful of what about — of what’s about to come. He knows there’ll be severe consequences because of the united NATO front, but the point is: It’s real."

Russian use of biological weapons is unlikely. Its use of chemical weapons, which it has in abundance, and whose employment Russia's military has thought long and hard about, is more likely.

US directly warns that large-scale Russian cyberattacks against American and other Western targets are likely.

Russia says it's not going to happen. NBC News quotes Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov: "The Russian Federation, unlike many Western countries, including the United States, does not engage in state-level banditry."

Most others are not so sure. President Biden yesterday issued a general warning to US organizations that intelligence suggests a coming Russian cyber campaign: "This is a critical moment to accelerate our work to improve domestic cybersecurity and bolster our national resilience. I have previously warned about the potential that Russia could conduct malicious cyber activity against the United States, including as a response to the unprecedented economic costs we’ve imposed on Russia alongside our allies and partners. It’s part of Russia’s playbook. Today, my Administration is reiterating those warnings based on evolving intelligence that the Russian Government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks." An accompanying fact sheet stresses the importance of familiar best practices and offers an aspirational set of longer-range policy prescriptions.

A brief statement from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency indicated that CISA would "rapidly share information and mitigation guidance" to help organizations, large and small, protect their systems. The Department of Homeland Security added, "Organizations can visit for best practices on how to protect their networks, and they should report anomalous cyber activity and/or cyber incidents to or (888) 282-0870, or to an FBI field office."

The US Administration hasn't said, in detail, what the evolving intelligence was showing. Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger said, at a media briefing yesterday, that more had been shared with sectors most directly at risk. "You’ve seen the administration continuously lean forward and share even fragmentary pieces of information we have to drive and ensure maximum preparedness by the private sector," she said, "So as soon as we learned about that, last week we hosted classified briefings with companies and sectors who we felt would be most affected, and provided very practical, focused advice." The briefings and warnings issued yesterday were intended "to raise that broader awareness and to raise that call to action." She added, "There is no evidence of any — of any specific cyberattack that we’re anticipating for. There is some preparatory activity that we’re seeing, and that is what we shared in a classified context with companies who we thought might be affected. And then we’re lifting up a broader awareness here in this — in this warning." Thus there's more than a priori possibility underpinning the warning, but the threat remains in a preparatory phase.

Advancing censorship in Russia.

Reuters reports that a Russian court has officially found that Facebook's corporate parent, Meta, was guilty of "extremist activity," and thus its operations in Russia will be severely curtailed. Facebook and Instagram are out, but WhatsApp can stay, for now. In its defense Meta argued that not only was it not "extremist," but that it was in fact opposed to "Russophobia," but the court foreseeably found otherwise.